Meet Neel Ghose, the 29-year-old Havard Business School student who, along with friend Anand, started the Robin Hood Army (rha) in Delhi in 2014. A volunteer-based organisation which collects excess food from restaurants and distributes it to the less fortunate, RHA now operates out of 41 cities in the country.
The Calcutta boy and ex-student of St. Xavier’s Collegiate School was the vice president of international operations of Zomato. He is a bit of a nomad and has lived in eight cities across five countries, setting up the operations of Zomato and the Robin Hood Army, worldwide.
In three years, the RHA has served food to over 2 million people through a network of 10,000 volunteers across 41 cities. Over to Neel Ghose and his army.
What is the Robin Hood Army?
A volunteer team of young professionals and citizens who have taken to the streets in their free time to fight national hunger. The team collects excess food from restaurants and distributes it to the less fortunate. Through a combination of a passionate team and a healthy seasoning of luck, we have now built an “army” of Robins across 41 cities who have served 2.1 million people till date.
How is the name Robin Hood Army made relevant?
I can definitely speak for myself, but I do imagine the ‘mythological’ character Robin Hood had a special place in a lot of our childhoods. We don’t exactly steal from the rich, but the idea here is to create a growing platform where people can contribute their skills and resources to the benefit of those who need the help most.
How did the idea come about?
Honestly this was not an original idea — I was living and working in Lisbon, Portugal, where I came across a unique organisation Refood, which collects excess food from restaurants and gives it to the less fortunate. I was enamoured by the simplicity of the idea and spent some time with the founder and the team to understand the operations. I realised this is something which can be replicated in India where the need is so much more.
What was the first move for the RHA?
When I moved back to Delhi, I got in touch with my old friend and colleague Anand. We discussed the idea, the feasibility, the challenges, whether it would actually create a difference — and then we realised we were just over-thinking and over-strategising and the only way to learn is to hit the ground running. On our first night of distribution, five of us Robins served 150 people in South Delhi. We weren’t sure if we would find enough people to give the food to — we couldn’t have been more mistaken. There were thousands.
On further research we learnt that there are 194 million hungry people in India of which 7,000 die every single day. We realised then that serving a few hundred people might feel good to the conscience, but would make no difference in a country where millions are going hungry. That set the culture of disruptive growth in the Robin Hood Army.
How does the RHA work?
We work with a hyperlocal approach. Each city is split into smaller chapters which look after the immediate community. For example, in our Salt Lake chapter, the food will come from restaurants in Salt Lake. The volunteers are residents who live in the different sectors, and the less fortunate would be homeless families, orphanages, old-age homes in the neighbourhood.
The Robin Hood Army is extremely decentralised and fluid. Each team has complete authority to come up with its own initiatives. We have only one rule — a strict no-funds policy. No one can raise monetary donations in the name of the RHA.
How did the RHA movement spread from Delhi to other cities?
Like a lot of things in the Robin Hood Army, this too happened by chance. While we were sharing moments of Robin Hood Delhi on social media a lot of our friends, colleagues, and batchmates from other cities got in touch saying they would like to help out when we take the RHA to their city. This left us with a choice to make — do we wait till we get Delhi working like clockwork or can we share the best practices of what we do remotely and guide others into starting their chapters? I am so glad we chose the second option, because folks who have much more time and resources than us adopted the platform completely and took it to a level we could never have managed by ourselves.
Calcutta was one of the first cities we expanded into. Having spent a lot of my formative years there, the city has always been special to me, and it was important for me at a personal level to give back in some way. I reached out to my childhood friends Chitvan Jaipuria and Ankita Dokania who launched the Robin Hood Army in Calcutta.
RHA has been reaching out to the less fortunate for the last three years on Independence Day. Is #Mission1Million a part of that?
Yes and no. #Mission1Million is a national movement to mobilise the private sector and civil society to serve one million less fortunate citizens across India and Pakistan. The mission aims to collect and facilitate a million meals that will go to orphanages, old-age homes, homeless people and ailing patients. #Mission1Million will be executed this year through a three-pronged approach:
10,000 “Robins” across 41 cities will manage the field operations.
The logistics will be facilitated by the start-up ecosystem.
Media houses and social influencers will help spread the word to the masses.
What is the goal of #Mission1Million?
Two things fundamentally, one to draw awareness to the fact that there are still more than 200 million citizens who suffer from hunger in both countries. Secondly, and more importantly, to show that if we work together as a team and tap into the resources of private citizens and networks we can beat this problem.
As the youth of our nations, it is crucial that we take the onus, stop blaming everything on the state; and as private citizens use our skills and collective networks to make a real difference.
How can people get involved in #Mission1Million?
Simple, you just need to log on to facebook.com/robinhoodarmy and sign up and join your local Robin Hood Army team. Alternatively, people can arrange for a food drive with family and friends in their local neighbourhood. Please do share your moments on social media with the hashtag #Mission1Million.
Where does the RHA go from here?
At this point we serve 100,000 people per month across Asia, the six-month aim is to significantly grow that number and spread our presence into Africa and Latin America. We have recently started the Robin Hood Academy, where we conduct lessons on the streets with a standardised curriculum with the aim to enrol the street kids into local government schools.
At last count, 400 “graduates” of our Academy are now enrolled in school full-time. We hope to grow that number manifold. We like to think in the RHA that our work is just One Percent Done. We earnestly hope this is just the beginning of the journey.
ROBIN HOOD ARMY, A MOVEMENT THAT KNOWS NO BOUNDARIES OR BORDERS
The Robin Hood Army is important to me for a very simple reason. Because it does not know it, but it is really much bigger than itself. It has greater significance than it knows. It is a Mission. It is a Cause.
Causes bring out what is best in people. They make them greater than they are. Think Bengal pre-Independence. It’s staggering how the cause of independence turned regular citizens into passionate, brave and noble souls.
Likewise, be it Jes suis Charlie, Occupy Wall Street or our very own Chipko and Swadeshi Movements, any great ‘peoples movement’ has always made heroes of commoners. Same with the Robin Hood Army — it’s turning common people into leaders of a passionate movement to eradicate hunger. The #Mission1Million initiative, which in its nascent stages is already the largest war against hunger, is bringing out what is best in all of us. It’s bringing together people from different communities, different countries, regular people from various walks of life with no other agenda except, in Neel’s words, “unconditional kindness” towards the less fortunate.
It’s hard to put in words how fulfilling kindness and generosity can be. But the only way to discover it is, come do it for yourself. The smallest things, a small food packet you hand out on a cold midnight street, can light up a sad beggar child’s face. Something breaks inside you. Something stirs your soul. Then you know that there are things bigger than yourself. And that the only thing that really counts is humanity.
That’s why the Robin Hood Army is important to me. Because it is a movement that knows no boundaries or borders. Because it transcends politics and caste and religion. Its only religion is humanity itself.
Ashwika Kapur International wildlife filmmaker and Green Oscar winner